On-Demand and Play

On May 24, 2006 by Christy

Scheduled viewing—watching a television show or film at a particular time, tuning in to listen to a radio show, attending a theatre performance—has been the dominant mode of accessing entertainment since early (Roman?) theatre. Sure, we’ve had street-player performances, but they are not scheduled or on-demand for the audiences. Such entertainment is impromptu (for the audience), extra entertainment not intended to be experienced but decided at the moment to be so or not. It could be seen as “push” with an “opt-in”.

With the introduction of recording technologies, such as a the wax phonograph, cassette tapes, game cartridges, floppy discs, CD-Roms, DVDs and so on, audiences could “time-shift” their viewing: experience it beyond the scheduled viewing time. More recently, with the Internet, audiences can access the entertainment streamed through a website or download a digital file that they can then access anytime on their computer or mobile device. As an aside, the notion of “time-shifting” is relational: the viewing time can only be shifted if it was at some time fixed. The notion, therefore, is not technically appropriate when talking about content that never was delivered at a fixed time.

Another impact of the Internet has been the globalisation of content (bare with me, I’m getting to a point soon). The majority of websites are available to all users, regardless of what country or time theyÂ’re viewing from. Audiences are aware, therefore, of programs (tv shows etc) that are available OS and so try to access them immediately rather than waiting for their own countries release. They also form communities of interest around content they appreciate and so feel left out if some members of their community have access before them. People don’t congregate according to country, they congregate according to interest! There is an increasing trend, therefore, towards simultaneous global releases; region by region releases that are at least close to each other in time; and global internet “pre-releases”. The latter notion of a “Internet pre-release” is another example of old media snobbery/hang-over. A worldwide accessible Internet release has a potentionally greater reach than a television release. What is “pre” about that? Perhaps then a pre-release is in the context of broadcast or cinema being considered a primary/preferred medium/technology?

In the pivotal/first work on “play” Italian philosopher Johan Huizinga put forward that the first main characteristic of play is “freedom” (Huizinga, 1955 [1938], p.8). He elaborates:

Play is superfluous. The need for it is only urgent to the extent that the enjoyment of it makes it a need. Play can be deferred or suspended at any time. It is never imposed by physical necessity or moral duty. It is never a task. It is done at leisure, during “freetime”. Only when play is a recognized cultural function—a rite, a ceremony—is it bound up with notions of obligation and duty. (ibid.)

Juxtaposing this notion with the entertainment distribution trend of on-demand viewing, I was struck by how much of our entertainment has not existed within the domain of play. Until the last decade or so entertainment has not been something we could access as we needed it (unless you pick up a book), it has not been something we could defer or suspend at any time. It has a times been a task. Our “freetime” has been defined by others. Obviously this context is changing, but gee, I was quite surprised when I considered this notion. Have we been missing out on a whole lotta fun? How has this impacted the design of entertainment, our experience and expectations of it? I think this may be one of the reasons why we’re seeing a whole lot more UGC: entertainment is fun again. It is something we can call on whenever we want, it answers us, it is disposable, it can be shared. Engaging with it is a lot less serious business.